Wednesday, 3 March 2010

The Payback of Self-Awareness

Having better relationships.
Playing better sport.
Losing more weight.
Feeling happier.
Being a more effective leader.
Staying ahead of the competition.

This wish list is united by one single attribute, that of self-awareness. The word "awareness" can often start ringing alarm bells for the more results-oriented individual as it has been associated with some of the more esoteric, less tangible of the performance improvement activities. However, we know that athletes who have heightened self-awareness perform better, as does the leader who is negotiating change or leading the way for new innovation, as does the parent who wants to better understand his teenager. Simply put, it begins with you!

High performance requires one to be both relaxed as well as highly focused. The mind must be quiet in order for concentration to be possible and concentration is the most important element for self-awareness. With too much "mindless" chatter, the important thoughts and things that you can do will be lost. There is also a kind of rest that your mind requires in wakefulness for living well that you cannot achieve or compensate for during sleep. Imagine a sea which when calm clearly relfects the image of everything around such as the boats, the birds and the cliffs whereas when stormy it seems dark, and objects become lost and difficult to pick out. A mind that is agitated or distressed cannot clearly tap in to nor reflect reality.

Quieting the mind is a fundamental skill required for improving self-awareness. I use a training system which I call "the brain game", which can only be played where the mind is highly focused and highly relaxed. This game provides direct and immediate feedback relating to the brain's activity, using a technique known as "biofeedback" or "neurofeedback". This is a speedy way for someone to learn how to switch off the chatter or interruptions of the mind in order to become more focused and so more effective. Other methods I use for increasing focus are through learning how to apply visualisation and imagery, self-hypnosis and relaxation, tapping in to one's automatic "self-talk" and of course "mindfulness" training. The concept of mindfulness originates from Zen Buddhism but now is practiced by mental health practitioners, including the UK's NHS Clinical Psychologists, for clients who have not responded to more conventional psychotherapy interventions. Over the past 3 decades these methods have been tapped into more and more in the world of sport, the Performing Arts and much more recently, in the world of business. Books have been published aplenty, including most notably George Leonard's The Ultimate Athlete (2001;1975), Michael Murphy's Golf in the Kingdom (1974), Golf is not a Game of Perfect by Dr Bob Rotella (1995), Mastering Your Inner Game by David Kauss (2001) and Jon Kabat-Zinn's Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation and Full Catastrophe Living.

These along with other practices taken from cognitive psychology have been applied to great effect for some time in the world of sport as well as in business at the highest levels. This does not mean it is not just as effective for the average player nor for the team-member who has just been promoted to the position of supervisor or department head. It is interesting to realise that the earlier that these skills are learned, the better chance we have of progressing smoothly on a calm rather than a more choppy sea, with less damage done along the way! The benefits are beyond quantification as they improve all areas of life including your health, not just simply at work, or in sport. Multinationals such as Google, Microsoft, and in fact most of the leading knowledge-based enterprises are certainly seeking out these methods which provide their people with that essential competitive edge, in the same way that the highest performing athletes have done now for so much longer. The "Eureka" effect of discovering the answer once the mind is at rest has been well-documented, however the implications of improved self-awareness are much broader and more fundamental than simply problem-solving or coming up with the next innovation.

So here are some of the most pervasive and key mind skills to consider in seeking to improve one's self-awareness:

1. What puts you "off course" on your calm sea - i.e. what are your triggers for anger and loss of concentration? What are your negative triggers? When we get angry or upset we become stupid. Critical thinking shuts down as the emotional or "reptilian brain" (the amygdyla) takes over. Health-wise it is well-documented that stress and negative emotions such as anger cause impaired decision-making as well as increasing cholesterol, raising blood-pressure and lowering one's immunity.

2. What are the "thinking errors" or in psychology-speak "cognitive distortions" that get in the way of your effectiveness? Quickly, the most common ones I encounter are over-generalising (always & never thinking; black & white thinking), magnifying problems, minimising the positives, emotional reasoning (because I feel angry you are making me angry; upset; depressed; etc.), catastrophic thinking (I will never recover from this; my career is over; etc.), mindreading (people are thinking I am boring, stupid, etc.), to name a few.

3. How aware are you of your "inner critic" at the expense of your "inner coach"? As the ancient Chinese proverb goes - the dog that barks the loudest is the one that gets fed. Inner critical thinking (your negative "self-talk") gets in the way of thinking in a way that allows one to be highly focused on the goal in question, to focus on what's coming, what's being said (including what you don't want to hear and what's not being said), as well as what needs to be done. Instead it activates fear, insecurities and hangovers from the past, ensuring we become stuck in the past. Concentrate on recognising how vocal your inner critic is (sometimes called the "critical parent" as it is claimed by some to have been learned from such a parent) and develop ways to encourage the presence and voice of your "inner coach". Self-hypnosis, relaxation and biofeedback techniques are all useful.

An example of the Inner Critic: "Why did I do / say that? That was so stupid"

An example of the Inner Coach: "Focus on what I need to do right now in order to help things go where I need them to; switch off from the mistakes of the past and don't project too far forwards"

4. Recognising how you feel. Feelings can often be an uncomfortable subject, particularly for someone who associates feelings with weakness. However it is clearly understood that when a player feels tense, she sustains more injuries, she makes more mistakes and in fact plays a lesser game. Knowing how it feels to be highly relaxed and yet highly focused creates a much better player; as well as creating better relationships and allowing better life decisions to be made. Learn to know how this feels for you as well as how it feels to be upset, tense, distracted, angry, etc. Where do these feelings manifest themselves in your body, what muscles tense for example, what happens to your body temperature, what are the early warning signals and most importantly what helps you ease them before they begin to interfere with what you are trying to achieve?

5. Recognise Performance Interference Thinking versus Performance Enhancing Thinking and consider that a relationship exists between what you are thinking and how your body and your emotions react. This is at the heart of self-awareness

Each and every one of us has a potential that is truly huge when we face everything internal that unwittingly slows us down and gets in our way. It's there in you but hidden under layers of life and thoughts that get in your way. When asked what I call this approach, I could describe it as many things - Performance Coaching, Sports Coaching, Leadership Coaching, Emotional Intelligence Coaching, Mindfulness training, Health Coaching, Hypnotherapy, Biofeedback and Neurofeedback. In essence it is a truly multimodal approach, when applied well it can overcome and manage harmful physiological, cognitive, behavioural and emotional responses. In developing self-awareness, I have witnessed many clients fast-track to a better place emotionally as well as physically which then delivers a more rewarding life. For the results-oriented among you, the most successful organisations are already doing it. I encourage everyone to try this, not just the high achieving sportsman or leader.

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself" - Leo Tolstoy.

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